The future of financing a law degree is almost here.
At the Association of American Law Schools annual conference earlier this month, former New York Law School Dean Richard Matasar encouraged audience members to consider various options for transforming legal education.
And, two months ago, Yale Law School professors Akhil Reed Amar and Ian Ayresa published an essay called “Paying Students To Quit Law School,” and initiated an interesting conversation about costs. They suggested that schools refund underperforming students half of their first-year tuition to leave and compared their proposition to the $3,000 offer the successful online shoe retailer Zappos makes to new hires, who may want to quit after completing the company’s training program. …
2012 can be the year to implement a positive shift in the logistics of legal education. The legal academic community has jump-started this discussion by beginning to implement changes to the curriculum, practical training initiatives, and greater transparency in reporting employment statistics.
The time has come to talk more openly about the cost of a legal education and I don’t mean cheaper, I mean different. My suggestions vary from those offered by professors Amar and Ayresa because they are not driven by performance, where schools persuade underperformers to leave, but rather by student preference, where those who find they lack the passion to continue have a realistic choice to walk another road. …
 Instead of starting the shift by making law school cheaper, consider restructuring the payment schedule. As the first year seems to be the most commoditized of the three years, with little differentiation among courses and teaching styles, perhaps schools can assign it a lower value. The total cost of a degree would remain the same (for now), but it would give students the option to leave early without an oppressive debt burden. There would be no refund credits necessary.
If, for example and the sake of simplicity, the tuition over three years is $100,000, charge $5,000 per semester in the first year and offer a paralegal certificate the same way that admitted attorneys in some states can automatically become notaries public or licensed real estate brokers. Then charge $22,500 per semester for the following two years. …
 Proactively provide students with counseling about whether they should continue with their legal education. Keeping uninspired students may lead to dissatisfied alumni, which is a loss for schools in the long term. Remove the stigma about quitting in favor of alternatives. Have your remarkably creative career services team continue to expand the pool of options for students. Instead of encouraging students to avoid failure, motivate them to seek out their greatest potential for success. That shift could transform the entire profession.
 In addition to tuition modifications, we should consider strategies for eliminating some of the ancillary costs associated with the first year as well. For instance, digital publishers must be able to produce fairly standardized casebooks that are supported by ads from bar review companies, research services, local restaurants, and other organizations interested in reaching law students.
Instead of prohibitively expensive print volumes, create versions for the kindle or iPad, and offer premium add-ons like videos from professors similar to those BarBri provided when I studied for the bar in 1997. Perhaps it will include interactive outlines and digital flash cards like those made popular by visionary author Kimm Walton. In fact, there are rumors that Apple is hosting an event in late January to address this very evolution of the textbook market.
This is an extraordinary watershed moment that calls for collective action. Law schools, law firms, legal departments, and even industry analysts, are searching for ways to realign costs with value. Together we can publicize positive proposals and share them with those leaders who can help bring them to fruition.